What is it?
iBooks is Apple's answer to Amazon's Kindle e-reader. You can buy books for it in the same way you do with music -- using Apple's own store. Books you've bought are arranged in a rather lovely virtual bookcase, and you can flit between each one. Your place in each book is saved, so it's easy to have several books on the go at the same time.
How easy is it?
Downloading books simply couldn't be easier. There's a dedicated 'store' icon at the top of the virtual bookcase which takes you directly to the iBooks store. It even does so with a pleasant bookcase-spinning animation that makes you feel like you're entering the Batcave.
Anyone who's downloaded anything through iTunes or the App Store via their iPhone or iPod touch will be familiar with the layout of the iBooks store. Featured books are presented on the first tab, and you can search for books if you have something in mind already, or browse by what's topping the charts. You can also browse the store by author, which is a particularly useful addition.
Compared to Kindle?
Amazon has its own Kindle app for the iPad and iPhone, which has been bringing ebooks to the mobile masses for ages now. To download new books, however, you have to exit the app and trawl through Amazon's ebook database in the iPhone's web browser. It's hardly an ordeal, but Apple's interface is much smoother. The other advantage iBooks has over the Kindle app is that currently Kindle doesn't support multitasking, and must restart from scratch every time you flit back to it. It remembers the last page you were on, but still, it's an extra second of loading time that iBooks doesn't suffer from.
How does it feel to read a book though?
Ah, the big question. Reading a novel on a small mobile phone screen is never going to be as good as reading it on the iPad's larger screen, and it's certainly not as tactile as a -- y'know -- paper book. Nevertheless, iBooks does a really good job of softening the blow. As you can see in our screenshot, the page colour isn't blinding white, but a softer, more greyish tone which won't sear your retinas. Page turn animations are also very smooth, and most importantly, text renders very clearly.
As far as customisation goes, you can adjust the brightness, choose from a range of fonts and turn on sepia if the screen is still a little bright for your tender eyes.
Something the Kindle app features that iBooks doesn't is the ability to turn the background black and the text white, which is easier on the eyes, and great if you're trying to read at night without alerting a sleeping partner. Kindle also has a greater range of font sizes to choose from. That said, iBooks does let you access a book's contents menu quickly, which is a real godsend if you lose your place and need to find it again quickly.
The iPhone's screen is small compared to even the tiniest of books, and there's no way of getting around the fact that it simply is a very small rectangle to read from. Decreasing the font size means more eye strain, and increasing it means more distracting page-turning. With the petite dimensions, however, comes portability the likes of which you won't find on a paperback, or even the iPad or Kindle hardware.
iBooks isn't perfect, and we'd like to see a wider range of font sizes to cater to more fickle readers. It does what Apple has always done best though -- it makes a potentially fiddly experience effortlessly smooth.
From purchasing to reading, nothing feels like a bother. Amazon's Kindle app could catch up with a few presentation tweaks and a rethinking of the book purchasing process, but for now iBooks is the best iPhone ebook app out there.